Terry Pratchett conceived the central idea of the novel already in the early eighties in his short story The High Meggas, published for the first time last year in A Blink of the Screen, a collection of Pratchett’s shorter fiction. The success of the first Discworld novel caused him to put the story aside and he only returned to it a few years ago, when he joined forces with Stephen Baxter.
I haven’t read anything by Baxter, but I could spot Pratchett’s style almost immediately. Similar to his Discworld novels, The Long Earth is not so much made up of chapters (even though the novel has numbered chapters), as scenes that at first seem to be tossed in there rather haphazardly. If you’ve never read anything by him before it can be jarring at first as you struggle to figure out what the story actually is, but after a while you get used to it and everything makes sense.
The characters come across as a little flat. The focus is much more on stepping and its effect on humanity than on the characters and we don’t even see the main character, Joshua, from all sides. However, if you’re used to Sir Terry’s style that’s also not surprising as he tends to let his characters grow over the course of several novels (and there’s at least three more novels planned in this series).
What really impressed me about this novel is the world-building. There are Earths that are almost indistinguishable from ours (save for no humans and consequently no widespread destruction of the environment), Earths experiencing ice ages, Earths that are mostly desert. There’s one where North America is one vast inland sea, one where the moon never formed and one Earth that was completely destroyed by an asteroid that hit somewhere in the distant past.
On some Earths life never evolved while on others there are creatures unlike any most of us would be able to imagine. In particular there are also two species of humanoids with at least some measure of intelligence as well as some other unusual abilities, called elves and trolls. My guess is that this was something Baxter specifically added to the mix, as much of his writing has been based on evolutionary biology and animal behavior.
I wouldn’t call this novel a page turner. Rather, it reads almost like a documentary, as if it is reporting on events as they unfold while giving us some insight into the thoughts and emotions of the characters. This unfortunately makes it easy to put down, but it was good enough that I kept picking it back up again. It’s an easy read that I would even recommend to someone who had never read Sci-Fi before.
While it’s not one of the best books by Pratchett that I have read, I’m eagerly anticipating the paperback release (my budget doesn’t allow for first edition hardcovers and I’m still resisting ebooks) of the sequel, The Long War, which came out earlier this year, especially as The Long Earth ended on one heck of a cliffhanger. In the meantime I want to try and get my hands on one of Baxter’s books. From the little I’ve read up on him I think it would be worthwhile.